I had an invitation to a wedding this weekend but decided not to go in order to catch up on writing. My teaching schedule has been hectic these past few weeks because I took days off to attend meetings or took holiday leave and that meant back-to-back teaching on the days I was actually at IFA. And it’s not really 11:34 pm as the clock on my laptop insists. The laptop is still on Pacific Standard Time. It’s 15 hours later and in Laos the clock is ticking towards 3pm the next day.
Two blog posts were my goal this weekend. One’s up and I’m debating as I sit here whether to write about the rat in my kitchen or my recent trip to Luang Prabang. Since the rat story is still unresolved, Luang Prabang it is.
One of the perks of international volunteering is that you end up in a distant part of the world and you have opportunities to visit places you’d otherwise never get to if you even knew they were there. I had never heard of Luang Prabang before I learned that I was going to Vientiane. And then, that’s all people talked about: their friend who’d been to LP or their trip there or how it was on their “travel list”. Everyone who knows about LP wants to go there because it is a Unesco World Heritage Site as are two other attractions in Laos: the Angkor ruin of Wat Phou in southern Laos near Pakse and the Plain of Jars in the east on the Xiangkhoang Plateau.
So it was that we flew up to LP on a Thursday morning and, thanks to C and her husband, were met at the airport by a driver and put in touch with a private guide later that afternoon. Since they could not join me in LP, this gesture was their way of ensuring that I saw the best the area could offer. A wander along the riverside before dinner convinced me that the Mekong River really is a mighty waterway because in Vientiane, it’s a bit of a let down due to hydro dams upstream.
On our way to decide on a restaurant for dinner we strolled through the famous Night Market which everyone says is the best in Laos if not in SE Asia simply for the quality of the merchandise to be had. There are glorious stacks of sinhs, hand-crafted paper lanterns, scarves of cotton, scarves of silk and dazzling colour everywhere.
Mr. Chan met us the next morning at the hotel and, after a tour around the morning market where LP’s housewives and restaurateurs alike stock up on fresh produce, fish and meat, the National Museum was the next stop on the day’s sightseeing agenda. Actually, the National Museum used to be called the Royal Palace. Once upon a time, Laos had a royal family. The French built the palace for the king and his family in 1904 during the French colonial era and it was lived in by the Lao royals until 1947. Today it houses priceless religious artifacts retrieved from local stupas, stunning examples of early 20th century furniture and furnishings and exquisite wall coverings. It’s one of those places where every item tells a story. Out behind the palace is the royal car collection but it was closed when we visited. Of interest were the gas pumps placed in a corner of the property…well, at least to me because I felt like I had stepped back in time to some pre-World War 2 moment.
The Prabang Buddha from which Luang Prabang gets its name is housed in a new temple within the palace/museum compound. I’d been looking forward to seeing the statue which has been contested over the centuries by Siamese invaders. Despite its violent history, it’s actually quite small. Only 83 cm high. It has special powers, however.
From the palace grounds we climbed Phousy Hill, which rises above LP with a temple at the top. It’s a great workout but, because of the haze, we weren’t rewarded with the wonderful views we’d hoped for. Nonetheless, it was a good place to listen to preparations and rehearsals for a Buddhist festival which was taking place the next day at one of the temples down in the town.
As we descended Mr. Chan took us by a school, formerly a study centre for monks and now an English-language learning facility for less privileged youth. LP’s livelihood is tourism and English is the language which everyone needs in order to get ahead with their career. Staffed by Lao teachers, the school relies heavily on English-speaking volunteers who facilitate conversation sessions If I ever want to return to LP for a few months, they’ll gladly put me on the roster.
And as we made our way back out to Sisavangvong Road and lunch, I realized I was becoming quite fond of this pretty little city where it’s also relatively easy to cross the main streets!
The afternoon found us first of all at Wat Xieng Thong, formerly the temple of the Lao royal family until the creation of Lao PDR in 1975.
In a way, you could say it was to LP as Westminister Abbey is to London. Kings were crowned here and buried also. It is a showcase of Lao arts and crafts where the mythology and stories associated with Buddhism are told and re-told. Not only is there a carriage house where the royal funerary carriage is on display, there is also a boat house for the temple’s dragon boat.
Our final stop was Wat Wisunarat where the stupa is locally known as “watermelon stupa” or tat makmo. It was in this stupa that many of the treasures displayed at the National Museum were discovered. My reading about Wat Wisunarat tells me it is actually a working/active temple. When we arrived the monks were beating a drum, a pre-feast day ritual.
Later the same monks could be seen out sweeping the temple grounds. There’s been little rain for months in LP and the monks were churning up clouds of dust as they worked.
And that takes us to the end of our first whole day in LP. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to learn so much about the city and Lao history without C sending Mr. Chan my way. I’ll continue writing about the rest of our stay in Luang Prabang in my next posts. I need a cup of tea but am wondering if I’m going to meet the rat if I go into the kitchen.